The West & the Rest of Us: Atheism & Sexism 101

By Sikivu Hutchinson

At a youth media literacy conference I organized recently, I was fortunate enough to experience the performance of an extremely gifted youth band whose co-lead singer is an Asian American female guitarist. At one point during the concert she tentatively introduced a song she had written about sexism by saying that it “kind of does still exist today.” I was struck by her qualified intro to the song. She is one of the few young women of color musicians fronting a rock band in a hyper-masculine industry in which rampant sexual harassment, gender-based wage discrimination and racism ensure that women of color are only visible as sex objects, hangers-on and so-called video hos. Nonetheless, she was uneasy about embracing the term sexism.

Women's reluctance to name their experiences is symptomatic of the insidiousness of post-feminism, which has been normalized and relentlessly propagandized by mainstream media. It fits neatly into the exceptionalist narrative that the U.S. and the West are bastions of equal opportunity and enlightenment. Because people of color and white women have seemingly unlimited access to public space and public institutions the U.S. has evolved far beyond the “dark age” of the pre-civil rights era. Because women and girls now have the “option” to be just as video ho “nasty as they wanna be” the West is the universal standard for gender equity. This kind of totalizing thinking underscores a lack of critical consciousness about how institutional sexism, heterosexism, and racism—as the basis for individual acts of prejudice and discrimination—actually work. It is especially acute when it comes to the selective “West and the rest of us” mentality that some in the New Atheist movement exhibit about sexism, imperialism and women’s rights.

An example of this was recently on display in the Rebecca Watson-Richard Dawkins blogosphere throw down. Watson is the founder of the popular blog Skepchick, and frequently writes about gender politics. As has been widely discussed, Dawkins blasted Watson after she criticized a clueless slobbery male for propositioning her at 4 a.m. when she was alone in an elevator after a conference talk on sexism. Dismissing Watson as a whiny American feminist, Dawkins trotted out the victim Olympics plight of an oppressed Muslim female genital mutilation recipient from central casting. After a firestorm of criticism from feminist bloggers like Jen McCreight, Dawkins attempted to revise his position. Still, the phenomenon of white Westerners trotting out the cultural other as the ultimate barometer of oppression is a standard rite of passage. When powerful Western white men opportunistically evoke the lived experiences of Muslim women as a space of projection for what they deem to be “authentic” sexist oppression, they deflect from their own privilege and entitlement. It’s akin to white elites descending on Africa in search of the most hardcore safari experience. The exoticism and abject primitivism of the Other ultimately confirms the rationalism and universal subject status of “me” and “my” culture. Small wonder then that it is often far easier for a celebrated intellectual of the rationalist first world to see the authoritarian misogyny of Islam than the institutional sexism, heterosexism, and racism that he and other privileged males have benefited from at every step of the way; in the academy, in the publishing world, in the Western media, and in garden variety elevators. Predictably, Dawkins did not say that Middle Eastern and African Muslim women have an abysmally low standard of living because of the imperialist invasions and geopolitical exploitation of “secular” Western powers like Britain and the U.S., or that they are more likely to be dispossessed from their homes due to these incursions or to be sexually assaulted by occupying armies...More@

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Comment by Shutch on July 22, 2011 at 12:08pm

Your patronizing comments are symptomatic of the "fundamental issue" that you apparently don't understand.  Dawkins is a powerful internationally known multi-millionaire atheist who essentially told a woman who has received rape threats as a result of her visibility in secular discourse to sit down, shut up and be glad she’s not among the truly oppressed as defined by him.  Simply put, powerful white men are not going to be allowed to define and police the terms of sexual oppression and sexual harassment without being called on it.  And they are not going to be allowed to paternalistically trot out the lived experiences of third world women to buttress their efforts to silence women who speak out about sexism that transpires in the "enlightened" terrain of everyday life in the first world.  A "fundamental" aspect of institutional sexism is the "natural" right that men have to women's bodies--anytime, anywhere. It's a "fundamental" privilege that defines being male and being able to enjoy the entitlements of masculinity, a linchpin of which is being free from automatic sexualization.  Girls are socialized in the enlightened first world to accept being sexualized, to accept that males won't respect their personal boundaries and to accept a madonna/whore dichotomy of female identity drilled into them by the mainstream media and marketing establishment at birth.  Those that resist, question, challenge, and, more "fundamentally," identify this regime as sexism are bad bitches whining about victimization.  So atheist discourse is not some hermetically sealed preserve that is removed from institutional structures of power and control like patriarchy, sexism, heterosexism and racism.  The professional "secularist" field is largely dominated by white males from the academy who have systematically benefited from male domination (ideologically, fiscally and culturally) in disciplines like science scholarship and research, that have historically defined the category of what is human and hence universal.  The majority of atheist and secular humanist organizations (AAI, Council for Secular Humanism, American Atheists) are dominated by individuals who hail from these backgrounds.



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